TORONTO — A city-funded public education campaign to dispel racist claims and hateful rumours against Syrian refugees is set to launch this month.
City staff received an update Monday about efforts to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees. Of the 26,166 refugees who have arrived in Canada since last fall, 4,334 have chosen Toronto as their new home.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Coun. Joe Mihevc, a member of the Community Development and Recreation Committee, which received the report.
“With the pictures that people have been seeing in Europe and what some of the government officials in the U.S. have been saying, especially in this election period, it has contributed to a culture and anger towards the ‘other’,” he Mihevc.
One city-funded program aimed at calming the fear and easing the difficult transition for Syrian refugees is called The Ontario-wide Public Education Campaign Against Xenophobia, Islamophobia and Racism. Its goal is to fight a specific type of racism feeding rumours and stereotypes undermining efforts to welcome and integrate Syrian refugees.
The inaccuracies include that all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists, threats to Canada’s social system and are benefiting from government generosity at the expense of needy Canadians.
“What is driving the anti-refugee attitudes at the moment is a very specific kind of xenophobia,” said Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, which is overseeing the campaign.
“We want to tap right into that anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment sparked by the arrival of the Syrian refugees,” she said.
“Rumours feed and fuel pre-existing racist attitudes and behaviours.”
The public awareness initiative will roll out locally with a poster campaign meant to drive people to a website aimed at provoking discussion and reflection. The initiative will expand province-wide to public service announcements and events.
Beginning in May, the campaign will spread its message to schools, universities, business and landlord associations. Organizers also hope to collaborate with police departments as well.
“It is greatly needed as there has been a lot of misinformation out there that really is destructive,” said Leen Al Zaibak, co-founder of Jusoor, a Canadian NGO that provides academic assistance to Syrian youth.
“The biggest rumour I have come across is that the government is spending more on Syrian refugees than others like the homeless and veterans,” she said. “This is not true.”
Other cities like Barcelona already have anti-rumour campaigns in place.
In February, Toronto city council approved $220,000, on a one-time basis, to the Newcomer Office for its Syrian Resettlement Program. Of that, $90,000 has been earmarked for the city’s public education and anti-rumours campaign.
Despite strong backing from the federal government, some polls suggested that most Canadians disagree with the plan to welcome so many refugees into the country.
But the poll was conducted one week after the devastating terror attacks in Paris, a time that saw a spike in anti-Muslim incidents.
“We wanted to be as provocative as possible, so that Torontonians are pushed out of their comfort zone and examine their own stereotypes, assumptions, prejudices, rumours, and racist views,” said immigrant advocate Douglas.
The long-term goal of the campaign is to broadly tackle all forms of racism. The initiative hopes to emulate models established by anti-drinking and driving and anti-smoking initiatives that have made the issues top of mind for the public.
© 2016 Shaw Media